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What is Russia's endgame in Belarus?

State flags of Belarus and Russia in Minsk, capital of Belarus, 2013. Photo CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

A month after Belarus’ presidential elections, the country's political crisis shows no signs of abating. When President Alyaksandr Lukashenka attempted to secure a sixth consecutive term in office, thousands of Belarusians took to the streets, enraged at plausible accounts of electoral fraud. The authorities responded by detaining thousands of citizens; plausible accounts of violence in detention centres prompted even more Belarusians to protest. As a result, these are now the largest demonstrations in Belarus since the country gained its independence in 1991.

Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, ostensibly received over 80 percent of the vote, compared to barely ten percent for his challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has since fled to neighbouring Lithuania. She leads an opposition coordination council, and urges that she be recognised as the legitimate president of Belarus. Protests in solidarity with Tsikhanouskaya continue, demanding nothing less than Lukashenka's resignation. Yet so does the resilience of the Belarusian ruling elite, which has remained loyal to Lukashenka.

Moscow is watching with interest, and Lukashenka is playing to the gallery.

As the embattled president has grown ever more frustrated with the protests, his overtures to Belarus’ large neighbour to the East have become bolder. The tenor of his rallies and of state media coverage has become increasingly pro-Russian, portraying the protesters as opponents of the Russian language and incorrigible nationalists in the pay of foreign powers. Riot police have ostentatiously lined up to defend Soviet-era war memorials, although none appear to have been vandalised by protesters and there is no thirst among the opposition for “decommunisation”.

Furthermore, when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Minsk on September 3, the Belarusian government presented a recording, apparently intercepted between Berlin and Warsaw, supporting the Russian government's position on the poisoning of Alexey Navalny: that the hospital data had been falsified. Navalny, a Russian opposition politician who was evacuated to Germany after being poisoned at a Siberian airport, was the victim of a Novichok nerve agent, according to findings by the Berlin hospital where he was treated.

The message behind these moves is clear: Lukashenka is an indispensable ally, and the only person capable of keeping Belarus in Russia's orbit.

However, things are never so simple. In the early days of the election campaign, it was not only the West which Lukashenka primarily blamed for foreign interference. He obliquely suggested that meddling could also come from the East, and cited evidence to prove it: In late July, mercenaries from the Russian military contractor Wagner were arrested in Belarus. Once protests broke out, pro-Kremlin Russian media were not unsympathetic to their cause; some prominent opposition activists, such as former presidential candidate Valery Tsepkala, fled not to the EU but to Russia.

Russia and Belarus have much in common. The Russian language predominates in public life across much of Belarus today, which is a member of various Russian-led military and economic alliances such as the CSTO, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Union State. When Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenka after the election, he hinted at his hopes that Minsk would finally commit fully to each of the above. If that sounds pointed, it's because Lukashenka has been adept the “Eurasian shuffle,” playing Belarus’ NATO and EU neighbours to the West against Russia for political gain. In that, he is a great survivor — nourished by Russian natural gas which is pumped across the country to Europe, and offered to Minsk at below-market prices.

To a great extent, Lukashenka's future survival lies in Russia's hands. To understand more about Moscow's choice — or dilemma — I spoke to Yury Tsarik, head of Russian and Post-Soviet Studies of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, the Belarusian capital:

Maxim Edwards: It’s no secret that relations between Minsk and Moscow have been very strained in recent years. There would be little love lost among the Russian elite if Lukashenka were to go; depending, of course, on the alternative. It seems to me that Russia wants a transition in Belarus, but a managed one on its terms, and not one dominated by street protests. What is your assessment?

Юрий Царик: Действительно, Александр Лукашенко как руководитель Беларуси перестал устраивать Москву, причём, уже довольно давно, после того, как отказался размещать российские войска и военные базы на территории Беларуси в ходе прошлых президентских выборов, в 2015 году. С тех пор российская сторона последовательно сокращала доступные ему финансовые потоки, связанные с постсоветской интеграцией, и выстраивала инфраструктуру прямого влияния на внутреннюю политику Беларуси, то есть, взаимодействия напрямую с различными социальными группами (включая белорусскую бюрократию) минуя А.Лукашенко.

Поэтому и в ходе кампании 2020 года Россия работала жёстко против белорусского лидера, всячески поддерживая протестную повестку, давая трибуну лидерам новой оппозиции и так далее. Некоторая трансформация имела место после достижения соглашения между Москвой и Минском по поводу возвращения в Россию задержанных в Беларуси «вагнеровцев». В обмен на это Кремль обещал признать выборы в Беларуси (победу А.Лукашенко) и умерить критику белорусских властей в российских медиа. Несколько позже, уже после жёсткого разгона протестов 9–12 августа, России удалось навязать получить решающее преимущество над белорусской стороной, навязать более выгодную для себя сделку, включавшую размещение российских медиа- и политических специалистов, что позволило установить рефлексивный контроль над действиями белорусских властей. В итоге сейчас Москва занята навязыванием А.Лукашенко выгодного ей сценария конституционной реформы и трансфера власти.

Yury Tsarik: Indeed, Alyaksandr Lukashenka no longer suits Moscow as Belarusian leader. That has been the case for a long time, after he refused to station Russian troops and military bases on Belarusian territory during the previous presidential elections in 2015. Since then, the Russian side has reduced financial flows to Belarus connected to integration projects in the post-Soviet space, working instead on mechanisms to directly influence the domestic policy of Belarus. This means direct interaction with various groups in Belarusian society (including the state bureaucracy), bypassing Lukashenka.

Therefore, during the 2020 election campaign Russia worked hard against the Belarusian leader, giving strong support to the protesters’ agenda, a platform to leaders of the new opposition movement and so forth. That changed once an agreement was reached between Moscow and Minsk on the return of the “Wagnerites” [Russian mercenaries from the PMC Wagner group], who were detained in Belarus [shortly before the election]. In exchange, the Kremlin promised to recognise the results of the Belarusian elections (i.e. Lukashenka's victory) and to moderate criticism of the Belarusian authorities in Russian media. A little later, after protests were dispersed by force on August 9-12, the Russian authorities decisively took the initiative and gained the upper hand over their Belarusian counterparts. They imposed a more favourable deal for Russia, which included the arrival of Russian media and political consultants and allowed them to gain reflexive control over the actions of the Belarusian authorities. As a result, Moscow is now busy imposing constitutional reform on Lukashenka, which will bring even more advantages.

ME: In recent weeks, Russian officials have been quite dismissive of the opposition coordination council, or at least of Tsikhanouskaya. Are there any alternative partners in Belarus which Moscow might work with in the case of some transition of power?

Ю.Ц.: Российское руководство заинтересовано в максимальном ослаблении не только А.Лукашенко, но и Беларуси как государства. Это связано с тем, что такое ослабление является ключевым условием для выполнения именно Россией роли донора стабильности и безопасности на территории Беларуси, а также упрощённого доступа российских элитных групп к приватизации привлекательных активов белорусской экономики. В этом смысле Москва одинаково негативно воспринимает как А.Лукашенко, так и любого другого политика, который мог бы сплотить белорусское общество, стать мощным национальным лидером и в будущем потенциально бросить вызов доминированию России в Беларуси (как это в последние годы сделал А.Лукашенко). Отсюда и специфическое поведение Кремля: играть на противоречиях сторон, ослабляя их, и не делать ставку ни на одну из них. Российское руководство надеется в итоге получить в качестве представителя оппозиции знаковую компромиссную фигуру (вероятней всего – из числа бывших аппаратчиков), с которой будет готов разговаривать А.Лукашенко, для того, чтобы организовать политический диалог в цивилизованном русле и в своих интересах. Самодеятельность лидеров оппозиции, оформившихся в ходе политической борьбы и имеющих высоки кредит доверия от граждан Беларуси, для Москвы нежелательна.

YT: The Russian leadership is interested not only in weakening Lukashenka to the maximum possible extent, but also Belarus as a state. This is because doing so is a key condition for Russia to play the role of the [sole] guarantor of security and stability in the country. For groups in the Russian elite, it also simplifies the privatisation of attractive [state-owned] assets in the Belarusian economy. In this sense, Moscow takes a negative view to Lukashenka and to any other politician capable of uniting Belarusian society and becoming a powerful national leader who could potentially challenge Russia's dominance in Belarus, as Lukashenka has in recent years. Hence the Kremlin's approach: not to rely on any individual party, but to play on their contradictions and weaken them across the board. As a result, the Russian leadership hopes to promote a symbolic compromise figure as an opposition representative, most likely from among former state apparatchiks. It will be somebody with whom Lukashenka is ready to talk, to conduct political negotiations in a civilised manner and in accordance with their own [i.e. Russian] interests. The current opposition leaders, whose initiative has taken on its own form during this political confrontation and who enjoy high levels of trust from Belarusian citizens, are undesirable for Moscow.

ME: However, opinion polling shows that most Belarusians are fairly pro-Russian. One thing which could turn it against Russia could be heavy-handed Russian intervention or support for domestic repression. Is that understood in Moscow?

Ю.Ц.: В Москве прекрасно понимают риски, связанные с возможным прямым вмешательством в дела Беларуси на стороне Лукашенко. Поэтому такого вмешательства нет, а «помощь» со стороны России нацелена на установление контроля над внутриполитической повесткой и работой идеологической машины белорусского государства, а не на поддержку А.Лукашенко. Белорусский президент для Москвы является фигурой токсичной и утратившей легитимность.

Главной формой вмешательства России является навязывание А.Лукашенко конституционной реформы и того формата политического диалога, который выгоден Москве. В случае, если он будет сопротивляться, следует ожидать волну насилия между протестующими и властями и вооружённое вмешательство Кремля под видом «гуманитарной интервенции», которой в итоге будет радо белорусское общество и которую в итоге одобрит международное сообщество.

YT: Moscow is very well aware of the risks which come with directly interfering in Belarus to support Lukashenka. That's why there is no interference of that kind; Russia's ‘assistance’ is aimed at establishing control over the domestic political agenda and the ideological [PR] apparatus of the Belarusian state, not necessarily at supporting Lukashenka personally. For Moscow, the Belarusian president has become a toxic figure who has lost legitimacy.

The main form of Russian interference is its imposition of constitutional reform on Lukashenka, along with demanding a format of political dialogue which benefits Moscow. If he resists these demands, we can expect a wave of violence between the protesters and the authorities, followed by an armed intervention by the Kremlin under the guise of ‘humanitarian assistance’, which could ultimately please Belarusian society and get the blessing of the international community.

ME: Before the election, Lukashenka had hinted that Russia was responsible for political unrest, pointing to arrests of Russian citizens. Now, the authorities are trying to compare the protests in some sense to Ukraine's revolution in 2014, either an attempt to garner sympathy from Russia or due to the increasing role played by Russian media and PR personnel. Does that resonate in Moscow?

Ю.Ц.: Все прекрасно понимают, что разговоры о роли Литвы, Польши, Украины в белорусском политическом кризисе – это чистой воды пропаганда, имеющая весьма отдалённое отношение к реальному положению дел. В нынешнем политическом кризисе в Беларуси была заинтересована Москва и она сыграла ключевую роль в инициировании данного кризиса, как об этом и заявляло ранее белорусское руководство.

«Геополитический поворот» в работе белорусской пропаганды связан с достигнутыми соглашениями по «вагнеровцам» и по итогам жёсткого разгона протестов, о чём мы говорили выше. Соответственно, и российское влияние на государственную пропаганду в Беларуси тоже нацелено не на поддержку А.Лукашенко, а на разжигание розни в белорусском обществе и исключении возможности достижения согласия между властями и протестующими без посредничества Москвы.

YT: Everybody understands that all talk about the role of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine in the Belarusian political crisis is pure propaganda which is very far from the real state of affairs on the ground. It is Moscow which has proven to be interested in the current political crisis in Belarus, and it played a key role in initiating it. Earlier on in the crisis the Belarusian leadership even said so themselves.

The ‘geopolitical turn’ in Belarusian [state] propaganda is linked to agreements reached over the ‘Wagnerites’ and to the harsh crackdown on protests, as mentioned earlier. Accordingly, Russian influence on state propaganda in Belarus is not aimed at supporting Lukashenka but at inciting hatred within Belarusian society and foreclosing the possibility of the government and the protesters reaching any agreement without Moscow's mediation.

ME: Comparisons between Belarus and Ukraine are not infrequent (and are made both negatively and positively), but the events in Minsk remind me more of Russia's 2011 Bolotnaya protests against electoral fraud or Armenia's 2018 “Velvet Revolution”, which unseated President Serzh Sargsyan. The Armenian case showed that when a Russian ally has limited room for geopolitical manoeuvre, Moscow is happier to tolerate domestic political changes. Would the Kremlin be comfortable with a similar scenario in Belarus?

Ю.Ц.: Безусловно, Москва заинтересована в частичной демократизации и модернизации Беларуси, но при условии ослабления белорусского государства и сокращения стратегической автономии Минска. На самом деле, Россия часто использует прогрессивные устремления граждан различных стран для достижения своих внешнеполитических целей. Если в Армении российская сторона просто не видела для себя угрозу, то в Узбекистане поддержка Москвой Шавката Мирзиёева была сознательной ставкой на отход от архаики каримовского периода. Можно также вспомнить смещение Курманбека Бакиева ранее в Кыргызстане и другие примеры.

В этом смысле Беларусь с её пророссийским большинством, составляющим порядка двух третей общества, вполне может стать более демократическим и при этом пророссийским государством.

YT: Moscow is undoubtedly interested in the partial democratisation and modernisation of Belarus, but only on the condition that the Belarusian state is weakened and its strategic autonomy is reduced. In fact, Russia often uses the progressive aspirations of various countries’ citizens to advance its foreign policy goals. In Armenia [in 2018], Moscow simply did not see any threat to its interests. In Uzbekistan [after the death of longtime President Islam Karimov in 2016], Moscow's supported [Karimov's successor] Shavkat Mirziyoyev as as departure from the archaic rule of the Karimov period. We could also mention the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan's President Kurmanbek Bakiyev [in 2016], along with other examples.

In this sense Belarus, with a pro-Russian majority comprising about two-thirds of society, could well become both a more democratic and a more pro-Russian state.

ME: Lukashenka will have to pay a price for the Kremlin’s support; Putin has been increasingly vocal about his hopes for finally securing deeper integration between Belarus and Russia. What will that price be?

Ю.Ц.: В силу того, что, по мнению Москвы, А.Лукашенко потерял легитимность как правитель Беларуси, подписание стратегических соглашений, в том числе – в военно-политической сфере, с ним нецелесообразно. Поэтому ценой за весьма условную (см. выше) поддержку Кремля будет участие Кремля в определении будущего Беларуси в целом, включая конституционную реформу и трансфер власти. А.Лукашенко потерпел поражение в противостоянии с Москвой на этапе избирательной кампании и особенно – в ходе подавления протестов. Теперь Москва говорит: «Горе побеждённым!». Варианты у белорусского руководства ещё остаются, но реальная вероятность достойного их выхода из нынешнего кризиса с каждым днём снижается.

YT: As Moscow sees it, Lukashenka has lost legitimacy. Due to that fact, it's not expedient for Russia to sign any key strategic agreements with him right now, including in the military and political spheres. Therefore, the price for the Kremlin's very conditional support is this: a greater Russian role in determining the future of Belarus as a whole, including in constitutional reform and the transition of power. Lukashenka lost this struggle with Moscow during the electoral campaign, and that became even clearer during the suppression of mass protests. Now Moscow says: Woe to the vanquished! The Belarusian leadership still has a few options, but its opportunities to find an advantageous way out of this crisis is are getting slimmer by the day.

ME: It seems that Moscow has often been torn between the need to get loyalty from Belarus and to get better value for money from Belarus. Much of Belarus’ social stability has depended on indirect subsidies from Russia, which after all owns 38 percent of Belarusian state debt. Might supporting the status quo in Belarus eventually prove too expensive for Moscow?

Ю.Ц.: Да, именно так. Сохранение А.Лукашенко у власти – это чудовищно дорогой проект, которые не гарантирует при этом интересующие Москву дивиденды. Гораздо дешевле – встать «на сторону народа» и использовать демократические и прогрессивные настроения для того, чтобы контролировать белорусскую политику в формате парламентской республики (как говорят, в эту сторону будет проводиться конституционная реформа). Непростая задача при этом состоит в том, чтобы избежать формирования в Беларуси самостоятельного политического субъекта со стратегическими устремлениями (будь это лидер протестующих, объединивший общество, или же выходец из нынешнего белорусского истеблишмента, объединивший общество), который мог бы снова бросить вызов доминированию Москвы на территории Беларуси.

YT: Yes, that's exactly it. Keeping Lukashenka in power is a monstrously expensive project, and one which doesn't guarantee the dividends which Moscow wants. It is much cheaper to stand ‘on the side of the people’ and use democratic and progressive sentiments in order to control Belarusian politics through the format of a parliamentary republic (it is now being stated that constitutional reform will be carried out to this end). At the same time, it will be difficult to avoid the emergence of Belarus as an independent entity with its own strategic aspirations, whether society is united by a protest leader or another figure from the current Belarusian political establishment. That risks challenging Moscow's dominance in Belarus.

ME: How do you think the situation will develop in the near future?

Ю.Ц.: Дальнейшее развитие ситуации в Беларуси будет определяться тем, насколько успешно Россия будет “вести” А.Лукашенко к реализации интересующего её формата политического транзита в Беларуси и насколько успешно А.Лукашенко будет пытаться играть в свою игру, находясь под плотной опекой и давлением Кремля. В то же время качество решений и действий белорусских властей будет иметь критическое значение для предотвращения скатывания кризиса в фазу насильственного противостояния. Пока что это качество остаётся низким, а значит, вероятность конфликта – высокой.

YT: How the situation in Belarus will develop depends on how successfully Russia is able to “lead” Lukashenka towards a form of political transition which suits its interests, and how successfully Lukashenka will be able to play that game while under tight control and pressure from the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the quality of the decisions and actions taken by the Belarusian authorities will be crucial in preventing the crisis spiralling into yet another violent confrontation. Their decisions so far do not give cause for optimism, meaning that the probability of another confrontation is high.

Find out more about the turmoil in Belarus here

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